The Slush Pile

I have folders of ideas that haven’t quite made it into reality. Everything from blog posts and simple games to books and workshop concepts.

Now and then I review them. Sometimes something will click and I’ll see a way to make that thing real; sometimes I’ll see that the idea is not relevant any more, or feel that it has been surpassed by something else.

And often I’ll just have a feeling the idea needs more time or a later collision with another idea, so back in the folder it will go.

Before the viva your focus needs to be the work you’ve done: what you’ve completed, why it’s good and how you did it. But keep an hour for checking your slush pile, the ideas that didn’t quite come together. Not something you now need to add to your thesis, just something to turn around in your mind again. Look for the ways they connect with your achievements and see what you could do with them in the future.

Your next big idea could already be waiting for you.

Six Short Summaries

Six viva preparation ideas. Get a piece of paper and pick one of the following to write about. You don’t need to do all of these. Each one offers a different perspective on your PhD.

  1. Answer the question, “What’s important about my research?”
  2. Write about your conclusions and where they come from.
  3. Detail the helpful steers your supervisor gave you during your PhD.
  4. Write about what you found difficult during your research.
  5. Answer the question, “Who would find my work interesting?”
  6. Write down the first ten words that come to mind about your PhD. Expand on each.

A little thinking, and a little time spent on putting those thoughts into words on a page.

Thesis Commentary

Can you summarise each page in your thesis in ten words or less?

You have plenty of white space at the top of each page, so you can if you want to. It wouldn’t take long, assuming you’d read your thesis since submission, and were generally familiar with it. A minute to think and capture the flow of your research.

300+ words, maybe tables, a diagram, ideas, all compressed into a few words to help you when you return to the page again in your prep or the viva.

Taken together, all of these words would create a director’s commentary for your thesis. A DVD extra for your research. You help yourself when you write the commentary – reflecting, thinking – and help yourself later when you come back to it. A little helpful commentary for you.

There’s plenty of white space at the bottom of each page too. If the top of the page summarises the flow of your work, maybe there’s something useful you could put at the bottom as well. Highlight a key reference? An idea that’s important? What you think of it all?

You don’t have to fill the margins of every page to prepare well for the viva, but a little thought and a few words can be really helpful.

Explore

There’s a mindset of exploration in viva preparation.

  • Exploring what you did: not simply reading your thesis, but digging into it.
  • Exploring what it means: reflecting on what you think now.
  • Exploring recent literature: updating what you know and what might matter.
  • Exploring your examiners: what they know and do.
  • Exploring the possibilities for the viva: what might or might not happen.

If you’ve done the work for a PhD, being an explorer is probably second nature to you. You’re good at exploring; to prepare well for the viva you just need to continue using skills you already have.

Seeds & Fruit

At the start of a PhD, seeds are planted. Ideas. Questions are asked. It takes time to see these seeds grow, flower, bear fruit.

Some won’t make it. Hunches and ideas don’t always lead to what you think. Some seeds are planted late in the season and still lead to something valuable.

As you get ready for your viva, think about the seeds of your research and the fruit. What seeds did you plant? How did they grow? What fruit did you harvest?

Future Resources

I have an ever-growing list of ideas, potential projects and things to make to help people be ready for their viva. If you look around this site you’ll see lots of resources already:

  • over sixty episodes of the podcast in the archive;
  • a curated list of useful links from all over the place;
  • original free resources like The tiny book of viva prep and my first Viva Minicast;
  • pages with my ebooks and print guides;
  • and, to date, almost 250 daily viva posts!

I get stuck thinking about which future projects and resources to prioritise. Which should I do first? Are there any I shouldn’t bother with at all? What kind of resources will help? What would make the biggest difference?

Rather than try to figure it all out for myself, I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you have ideas for the kinds of resources that could help, then please, tell me! What you do you want? What do you think would help? Where are there gaps in terms of helpful resources about the viva?

Please email or tweet at me if you’ve any ideas!

Often the first step to finding a solution is really figuring out what you need. So… What do you need?

Salmon Swimming

I had an idea for explaining the PhD process, a picture in my head that I described to my wife:

Me: “PhD candidates are like salmon, swimming upstream to the source of ideas. It’s a difficult journey, long and tiring, but at the end-”

Mrs R: “They’re eaten by bears? Are examiners like bears?”

Me: “Erm, no. Well, I guess you could say-”

Mrs R: “I think a lot of salmon don’t make it. I’m sure I read that. Swimming against the current kills some salmon just for trying.”

Me: “…”

Mrs R: “And then some of the salmon that make it get eaten. By bears.”

Me: “…”

There are lots of metaphors and analogies that work in describing the PhD journey and the viva. They’re useful because they give us something to hook into. They can set expectations or help us through tough times. Find one that helps you.

But please don’t be a salmon.

Plus, Minus, Interesting

I like to use thinking tools, and “Plus, Minus, Interesting” is a good concept by Edward de Bono. To put it simply, it’s just a request to look at things from different perspectives: look for positives, negatives and interesting features, don’t just examine something with whatever gut feeling you have.

I can think of lots of ways to use it when preparing for the viva:

  • Explore the methodology you used to do your research. Why was it good to do it the way that you did? What did it not allow you to do? What’s interesting about it?
  • If you find a passage that is unclear, use “plus, minus, interesting” to reframe the vague text.
  • Create a summary for each chapter, a single page divided into three sections. Plus for important things, minus for difficult parts, interesting for things that others might find, erm, interesting.
  • Use “plus, minus, interesting” to provoke an analysis or discussion of the main outcomes of your thesis.

This is just one flexible tool. There are others! Use what you can to explore your research in new ways. It’s good prep to think differently about your thesis before the viva.

Hurry?

I realised the other day that I often advise people to take their time when it comes to the viva.

Plan how you’re going to prepare.

Invest time in reading your thesis carefully.

Don’t rush to an answer in the viva.

It got me wondering, are there any areas of viva prep or thesis examination where it would be good to rush?

Well, there are things that you can do quickly, but they’re not so much about rushing as they are about doing specific tasks. Dash out some bullet points about a chapter when you start a summary file; spend two minutes to put a Post It at the start of each chapter in your thesis; write down the first five researchers you can think of whose work you build on.

You can do these quickly and then develop them: write a summary, add Post Its to other important areas, expand your researcher list. You’re not rushing, you’re starting.

I can’t think of a good reason to rush in preparation or in the viva…

…but maybe after the viva you want to hurry to tell someone your good news?

Last Minute

If tomorrow was your viva and you’d not done much to prepare, what could you do? This sounds like a weird question, but it’s one I’ve faced on occasion from a candidate who seems very worried. So, some ideas for someone with a rapidly approaching viva:

  • Put Post Its at the start of every chapter so that you can break your thesis down and make it easier to navigate.
  • Give a good friend a call and ask them to help you unpick your thesis through discussion.
  • Use the questions in these three posts to help you think about your research.
  • Recognise that you are supposed to be at the viva: you’ve not got this far by accident!

Don’t leave it to the last minute, but if you’re short on time remember you can do a lot with a little time.